Assessing the options

posted on 26th June 2018

One carrier is looking at innovative ways of speeding the boarding process, making life easier for its passengers and cutting down on aircraft turnaround times

Seattle-based Alaska Airlines has been assessing ways of speeding up its operations on the ground and is looking at different methods of allowing dual-door passenger boarding. As the carrier notes, airports generally only provide jetways for the forward door of single-aisle aircraft, and ramps create their own problems for passengers who are elderly, disabled or may be carrying a child in a car seat.

The carrier has been testing one possible option for dual-door boarding at San Jose in California, a motorised boarding ramp. The equipment in question is a new piece of GSE designed specifically for Alaska Airlines by Keith Consolidated Industries (KCI) of Medford, Oregon. Driven up to the aft door of a B737, its use has been found to cut as much as 10 minutes off turnaround time, the airline says.

The wide, aluminum ramp is covered by a non-slip material and three switchbacks provide a gentle slope, making it easy to push a wheelchair from ground level up to the rear door of the aircraft. Its control panel can be switched around so that the driver is always facing forward, whether moving toward or away from the aircraft. And, in keeping with the airline’s commitment to sustainability, the unit is solar-powered; however, it can also be hitched to a tug using a standard tow bar if the drive motor’s battery is not sufficiently powered.

“We don’t really have a problem with lack of sun in San Jose, but a fully charged battery gives us enough power to operate the ramp for about four days,” says Warren Barden, San Jose customer service manager for Alaska Airlines.

San Jose was chosen to test the new ramp because station employees have many years of experience boarding passengers from both front and rear aircraft doors, using ramps and a stair truck prior to moving to a new terminal with jetways in 2010.

Safety first

At San Jose, the unit is driven up to the aircraft, at which point a self-leveling ramp is lowered into place, forming a bridge to the rear door of the aircraft. Because the unit sits at a right angle to the boarding door, deplaning passengers are automatically directed safely away from the aircraft, where stanchions on the tarmac guide them to the terminal building.

“People tend to wait for the person ahead of them to get half-way up or down the stairs before starting to board or deplane themselves, slowing the process,” Barden says. “With the new ramp, passengers flow on and off the aircraft like water.”

Passengers seated in row 20 or above are given the choice of boarding and deplaning through the rear door using the new ramp. Since passengers deplaning from the rear of the aircraft come up through the terminal directly into the waiting area, they would either miss connecting with their bags at the top of the jetway or have to walk back down the jetway against the flow of traffic to pick up their bag. Therefore, those with gate-checked bags are directed to board and deplane through the forward door in order to reclaim their bags at their destination.

Station employees notify the flight attendants about 30 minutes before landing when they plan to use the ramp, so they can inform passengers that they will have a choice of deplaning through the forward or aft doors. On average, about 40 percent of passengers in San Jose choose to use the aft door when the new ramp is available, an Alaska Airlines spokesperson says.

When it is used, “the new ramp cuts eight to 10 minutes off a turn, which helps us get the schedule back on track when an aircraft arrives late,” enthuses Robbie Blandino, lead customer service agent in San Jose. “We have deplaned a full aircraft in less than 10 minutes using the new ramp, giving time back to our customers.”

Customer reaction to the ramp has, the carrier says, been generally very positive.